Archive for March, 2012

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Sermon for 11 March 2012

Lent 3 (b)

A television company conducted a survey on the question, “Which of the Ten Commandments do you feel is the most relevant today? Which is the least relevant?” In a representative sample of the population, 56% thought the most relevant was “You shall do no murder”, while “Honour your father and your mother” took second place at 14%. The least relevant was “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me,” scoring 27%.

Now, before we get too excited, it’s worth looking more closely at the survey. The fact that “You shall do no murder” came first and honouring parents second suggests that human life is key to people’s religion today. We generally value home life. That’s all to the good but “no other gods before me” as the least relevant is surprising. It could be the reason why we are gradually losing Sunday as a special day. Christians may take heart from the fact that among the churchgoers questioned, 38% said that none of the Commandments could be thought to be least relevant.

Gospel Teaching

When Jesus entered the Temple in Jerusalem he set about the money changers and traders on the grounds that they were using the Temple as a market place.  Can you imagine the scene? It wasn’t anything like a Church Christmas Market today with stalls selling home-made marmalade, woolly knitted animals and tempting tombola. Here in the Temple were real animals, cattle, sheep and doves and you couldn’t buy anything until you’d changed your money into Temple currency which was the only legal tender for buying in the Temple. The noise was impossible. The smell was appalling. And into this mayhem came the little known prophet, Jesus.

We’re told that he set about driving the traders out. We’re not told that he did this in anger. He appears to have acted calmly and precisely – although he did make a whip to use while driving them out! The authorities didn’t immediately express their objections, either. Perhaps they were aware that something needed to be done.

Jesus said, “Stop making my Father’s house a market place!” In his day, dishonouring the Father was taken with the utmost seriousness. Little sign of the Jesus “meek and mild” that we learned about in Sunday school. In an action of the most authoritative kind, he overturned the tables. And, at the same time, he also overturned everybody’s thinking. He brought a new dimension to the Temple scene.

St John is the only Gospel writer who records this incident at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The other three evangelists mention it towards the end. John wants us to learn from the beginning that Jesus had come to overturn people’s lives. The old ideas about God would be rewritten. The old ways of sacrifice in the Temple would be replaced by new life in a new fellowship. Jesus would build a new temple, open to all.

This action occurred in the outer part of the Temple at Jerusalem, known as the Court of the Gentiles. If you were not Jewish, you were barred from going further in. The new temple of Jesus would welcome all people. All must have access to God. His new temple would have no controlled market and no special money would be needed to buy your way in.

When Jesus entered the temple that day he found a faith that was stale, downright dirty. People were taking advantage of others and ritual had become more important than the condition of the heart. What Jesus did, I believe, was challenge a smug, hypocritical religious system that desperately needed to change. Therefore, a little demolition was necessary, not to mention an all out assault to clean house.

The faith community at that time was so wrapped up in rules and ritual the fresh revelation of God could not get through. It was impossible for them to “see” because they were blinded by obstacles that hindered their ability.

In this story we get an image of Jesus as a one-man wrecking crew, swinging a sledgehammer. There is no way to make improvements in an old house without making a mess. There is plaster dust, dirt, nails and smelly carpet. It is hard work. It is impossible to paint without getting paint on yourself. I am sure that Jesus absorbed a few skinned knuckles that day, not to mention getting his garment dirty.

The faith community needed a good housecleaning and Jesus took it upon himself to do just that with zeal and determination.

What would Jesus find in our churches? Although he probably wouldn’t find cattle or sheep, would he find the same attitude — religious rituals being just a business? Is the church building simply a place where people and God take care of business? Can worship become centered on the things we do, rather than the God who is present giving to us and forgiving us in Word and Sacrament? How can we change faulty worship attitudes?

Can “church as business” be a problem for the “professionals” in the church? Can leading worship for the clergy become simply a job for which we are paid? Does the laity sometimes think that they are “paying” the minister to do the worship for them — thinking, “We pay them to do this for us”?

Do we think of God more as a vending machine — put in our sacrifices or offerings or good deeds and out comes blessings? Do we misuse our (supposed) obedience to the Ten Commandments as bargaining chips with God?

Why the whip (only mentioned in John) and the harsh actions? Wouldn’t it have been more diplomatic and have caused fewer problems to sit down with the church leaders and discuss the problem? When are swift, harsh actions needed rather than diplomacy? When should a pastor just do what he believes is right, or go through the Parochial Church council.

What did witnesses of the scene in the Temple make of all this? The disciples of Jesus commented from the touchline, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” They saw Jesus acting decisively because he was zealous for his Father’s house. He couldn’t bear to see it disfigured in this way.

In our own lives, there will be times when we see things going on which offend our Father in heaven. Some very unfair things happen today. How should we react when we witness unfair action by others? One could be justified in feeling angry when others lose their job through no fault of their own. Is righteous anger not called for? We do well to test our own zealous actions against the example of Christ.

There is a story about a man who visited a church. He parked his car and started toward the front entrance. Another car pulled up nearby, and the irritated driver said to him, “I always park there. You took my place!” The visitor went inside and went into the sanctuary and sat down in an empty pew. Within moments another member walked up to him and said, “That’s where I always sit. You took my place!” The visitor was troubled, but said nothing. Later, as the congregation was praying for Christ to be present with them, the visitor stood, and his appearance began to change. Scars became visible on his hands and on his sandaled feet. Someone from the congregation noticed him and cried out, “What happened to you?” The visitor replied, “I took your place.”

Some things that happen in church are silly. Some things are down right scandalous. Some things may even be sacrilegious. But the Church is still the body of Christ and it was for the Church that Christ died.